Eric Clapton first met The Beatles (John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr) in December 1964 while Clapton was in The Yardbirds. The Yardbirds were one of the support acts for The Beatles Christmas Show at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. Over the next several years, Eric Clapton would form an abiding friendship with fellow guitarist, George Harrison.
On 3 September 1968, Eric Clapton played on sessions for George Harrison's composition, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at EMI's Abbey Road Studios in London. It is Clapton's most well-known guest recording session. At George's invitation, he recorded the lead guitar for the song. It appears on the band's double album, “The Beatles” (also known as “The White Album”).
John Lennon never made it to the studio for that now-famous session, so technically, Eric never recorded with The Beatles as a complete unit. On the finished track, it’s George Harrison on vocals / guitar, Eric Clapton on lead guitar, Paul McCartney on piano and bass (his bass parts were overdubbed later) and Ringo Starr on drums.
A few months later, on 10 January 1969, George Harrison quit The Beatles. After George left the studio, John Lennon, Ringo Starr and film director Michael Lindsey-Hogg discussed what to do if George did not return for the planned live performance (The Beatles were filming / recording all of their sessions at the time and it would eventually come out as "Let It Be" in 1970). Their entire conversation was recorded.
John Lennon said that if “George doesn’t come back by Monday or Tuesday, we ask Eric Clapton to play.” This prompted Ringo Starr to inquire why Clapton left Cream. Lennon replied that Clapton would be please to join The Beatles, but that he left Cream because “they’re all soloists.” He then asserted that The Beatles “would give him full scope to play his guitar.” John went on to say that he wanted the band to continue with or without George but would be willing to start his own band if necessary.
Although it was not his place, Michael Lindsey-Hogg, tried to establish a consensus of continuing The Beatles without Harrison. Lennon said, “Yes. If he doesn’t come back by Tuesday, we get Clapton.” At that point in the discussion, Yoko Ono, sensing John’s attention drifting from her, began screeching his name into a microphone. The conversation ended and a jam began.
The discussion was never renewed by The Beatles. Well-known for shooting his mouth off, Lennon's pronouncement may be one more in a long line of over-the-top statements. Or, maybe he was hoping his comments would quickly get back to George and force him to rejoin the group. But, all of this leads only to intriguing speculation.
No matter Lennon's intent, the proposition did eventually get back to Eric Clapton. In 1998, he commented on the idea’s absurdity. “There may have been [a suggestion that I would be asked to join The Beatles in January 1969]. The problem with that was I had bonded or was developing a relationship with George, exclusive of them. I think it fitted a need of his and mine, that he could elevate himself by having this guy that could be like a gunslinger to them. Lennon would use my name every now and then for clout, as if I was the fastest gun. So, I don’t think I could have been brought into the whole thing because I was too much a mate of George’s.”
Although John Lennon did not get Eric Clapton to join The Beatles, he did recruit him for the Plastic Ono Band in September 1969. In the ensuing years, Clapton would eventually work with all four men on solo projects.